Simple8’s 90-minute production is a comedy of linguistics and misunderstanding
The admired company Simple8 have taken a book by linguist and former missionary Dan Everett about his time in the Brazilian Amazonian jungle and transformed it into a fine example of the rich sub-genre of anthropological “poor theatre” enquiries stretching from Peter Brook’s Les Iks through to Simon McBurney’s The Encounter.
Basically, this reflects our fascination with lost tribes by-passed by “progress” in their own discomfort zone – we reckon – of poverty, ritual, ignorance and unknown language. Don’t Sleep is different in that the Pirahas have now been “civilised” – happily, as far as we know; they have running water and television – while Dan lost his faith, swam in their river and was then forbidden by the authorities to re-visit them.
It’s a colonising story in reverse, and it’s told with deft accomplishment by six actors – Mark Arends, Winston Smith in Headlong’s 1984, plays Dan – and a couple of chairs against a bare brick wall and the building’s red steel girders; the plane taking Dan to the jungle is done with a stool and a coil of rope that is then twisted to show the topography of the rivers on the ground.
Much of the 90-minute show operates as a comedy of linguistics and misunderstanding. The Pirahas have no sense of the past, no numeracy, no concept of the future or heaven, defining the sky as a higher level. They are happy and love alcohol. And they rut indiscriminately like stags, with a taste for body-licking in the undergrowth.
After a while, they want Dan to stay, but to stay without Jesus. He abandons his missionary position in the experience of getting to know them and finding ways of communication. This process is revealed in a series of sharply staged encounters and an easy, fluid acting style, so that pouring a jug of water over your head to indicate a baptismal immersion seems natural.
There’s a touching episode of a dying child abandoned by her mother – as is customary, apparently – a lively hunting scene with bamboo sticks, and a surprise transformation of everyone into squawking jungle parrots. In a brilliant moment at the end, Dan sends a recorded message to the tribe that clinches the subversive dynamic of the whole piece, which is co-directed by Sebastian Armesto, Hannah Emanuel and Dudley Hinton.
By Michael Coveney